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Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas said Tuesday the debate over whether LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan hinges on a few things, but as far as who is the better athlete, Thomas said it's probably James.
"They're both great players, and they're both great in their eras," Thomas said on "The Waddle & Silvy Show" on ESPN 1000. "In my era, we hadn't seen an athlete quite like Michael Jordan. He jumped higher than everyone else. He was a little faster than everyone else and he was just the best athlete.
"LeBron James is the best athlete of today, and he's probably a better athlete than Michael Jordan was. He's bigger, he's faster, he's stronger."
As far as who would win head to head, Thomas said it depends.
"Now when you put them out on the floor to compete against each other in different eras, it depends on which rules you're playing with and which coach you're being coached by," Thomas said. "So there's a lot that really goes into it.
"Had Michael Jordan not met Phil Jackson, would Michael Jordan be Michael Jordan today had he stayed with (Stan) Albeck and Doug Collins, and they were great coaches, but I think Jackson had a lot to do with his success. LeBron right now seems to be in the right situation with the right coach with the right players and his talent is being exposed and is flourishing."
Magic Johnson recently gave his take on who would win a game of one-on-one between Jordan and James.
"Easy answer MJ all day, every day!" Johnson tweeted, before adding: "If MJ and LeBron played 1-on-1 10 times, MJ would win all 10. MJ is the ultimate 1-on-1 player!"
Johnson did give James credit as the best player in the game today.
Jordan and Thomas have some history as fierce competitors. Thomas and several Detroit Pistons teammates left the court before shaking hands with Jordan's Bulls after Chicago won the 1991 Eastern Conference finals. That reportedly played a role in keeping Thomas off the 1992 Olympic "Dream Team." Scottie Pippen said he didn't want Thomas on the team and former NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik admitted Thomas' behavior after that series was part of the reason Thomas was left off the team.
LeBron James is the best athlete of today, and he's probably a better athlete than Michael Jordan was. He's bigger, he's faster, he's stronger.” -- Isiah Thomas
During the celebration of Jordan's 50th birthday on Sunday, Antawn Jamison said if Jordan played today, "he could get you about 10 or 11 points, come in and play 15-20 minutes." Thomas wasn't as sure when asked Tuesday if Jordan could average 10.
"If he played 40 minutes," Thomas said. "It's all about minutes and shots, always. The question is, yeah, he can score 10, but could he guard the other guy? Could he get back in transition?
"It's a lot that goes into playing an NBA game and it's a lot that goes into training to be an NBA player. You can be in great health-club shape, but to be a pro athlete and be in that type of physical condition, training condition and mindset, that's a different type of person you're talking about."
Although he joked about playing at the age of 50 when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, Jordan has since put that thought to rest, even though Charlotte Bobcats rookie Michael Kidd-Gilchrist said he recently lost to Jordan in a game of one-on-one.
Asked whether he could average 10 at the age of 50, Thomas didn't hesitate.
"Absolutely not, the athletes and players I think today are too good," he said. "I think we all have nostalgic great imaginations, and to say that you could do that is just a total disrespect to the players who are playing today."
Thomas was in Chicago to partner with Mayor Rahm Emanuel in announcing a basketball program aimed at helping at-risk youth.